Approachability is not in the Job Description

There is no shortage of qualified women for leadership roles across diverse professional fields.  In fact, women earn the majority of university degrees with the exception of professional degrees, and they contribute to the workforce in greater numbers than in previous generations.  The question still remains, why are women largely absent from equal representation in leadership?  

Implicit or Unconscious Bias in the workplace infiltrates our ways of thinking about how women and men (which women and men are we thinking about?) work and the type of work they do.  Who is a “natural” leader?  Who is invited to the meeting after the meeting?  Who is asked to help out with unpaid projects?  Who is assumed to not be interested in a new initiatives because of family obligations?

In recent conversations with highly education professional women in the U.S. and in several European countries, colleagues indicated that they have learned how to be “approachable” in the workplace while also learning how to excel at their jobs.  In other words, they work diligently to be valued for their qualifications while proving to their colleagues and administrators they are not too emotional, but just emotional enough.  Sound complicated?  It is!  

In these cases “emotional” discourse and behavior translated as aggression, anger, weakness, uncommitted, or unable to accept feedback  These were the unwritten rules.  The contradiction is that the women I spoke with were also often expected to be “emotional” in certain contexts.  These were also the unwritten rules.  

Bosses and colleagues asked these professional women to be “supportive” when co-workers were upset, to be a sounding board, to smooth things over.  In other words, approachability was added to their job descriptions.  This implicit bias requires emotional labor that is not related to their jobs.  It even negatively impacted their potential for advancement in their organizations.  For more information about gender and leadership, check out some of these sources.  

Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics 

American Association of University Women 

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom 

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